Do Democrats and Republicans Truly Misunderstand Each Other?
Yes, but not as terribly as you might think.
Posted Sep 01, 2019
Politics has always involved some stereotyping of the other party. But partisanship has been on the rise, and recent studies have come out with hard numbers that do appear quite extreme. A crucial study from June 2019 was titled, “The Perception Gap: How False Impressions Are Pulling Americans Apart” (Yudkin et al., 2019; see here for the full report).
For example, Republicans appeared much more open to the idea that “racism still exists in America” than Democrats gave them credit for. On this issue, 79 percent of Republicans said yes to the idea, but Democrats predicted only 51 percent of Republicans would say yes.
And Democrats appeared much more opposed to the idea of “completely open borders” than Republicans gave them credit for. On this issue, 71 percent of Democrats opposed open borders, but Republicans predicted only 38 percent of Democrats would oppose.
What Is “Racism?”
At least one author thought the 2019 data were being overblown because of the ambiguous wording of the polling questions (Grossman, 2019). For example, in asking respondents whether “racism still exists in America,” it does seem vital to know how respondents were interpreting the term “racism.”
In particular, Grossman cited a 2017 study that showed Republicans thought whites were more likely than blacks to be on the receiving end of “a lot of discrimination” (Jones, 2017). Among Republicans, 43 percent believed whites experienced that much discrimination versus 27 percent who believed blacks did. Among Democrats, 19 percent believed whites experienced that much discrimination versus 82 percent who believed blacks did.
So if we restrict the definition of racism to the mistreatment of primarily black people, as Democrats might’ve done, then Democrats’ relatively low estimate of Republicans’ acceptance that “racism still exists” might’ve been a fair assessment. And Republicans’ low estimate of Democrats’ opposition to open borders might’ve been fair depending on how Republicans interpreted “open borders.”
Can We Misperceive Our Own Group?
What the researchers behind “The Perception Gap” didn’t do, which can complicate conclusions, is to ask Democrats to estimate Democrats’ views and to ask Republicans to estimate Republicans’ views. Democratic and Republican respondents answered for themselves individually, but that’s not the same as asking them about their group.
A member of a group can misperceive their own group or the typical member of their group. A member can say “I’m not as extreme as most group members are” when technically all the members can say that same thing and the group may have no truly extreme members.
Might Democrats view the Democratic party, and Republicans view the Republican party, differently than they view themselves on an individual basis? It is clearly possible.
In phenomena like pluralistic ignorance and groupthink, researchers have found that individuals can look at each other within their group and misperceive what most group members are thinking. In a classic case of pluralistic ignorance, college students overestimated how comfortable other college students were about drinking, even though most college students individually reported relatively low comfort for themselves (Prentice & Miller, 1993). In general, a group can believe the stereotypes out there about their own group.
In groupthink, members of political groups can hold an illusion of unanimity. They may overestimate the degree of agreement on issues supposedly important to their group. Similarly, members who hold concerns about a political leader’s decision may keep those concerns to themselves because they falsely believe their fellow group members don’t hold such concerns. Such misunderstandings about our own political group can have dire consequences (Myers, 2013).
The “Perception Gap” study did not ask participants to rate their own political groups. But a 2018 study did and showed that Democrats misperceived the typical Democrat almost as much as Republicans did. And Republicans misperceived the typical Republican almost as much as Democrats did (Ahler & Sood, 2018).
For example, Republicans thought 36 percent of Democrats were atheists when it was only 9 percent, but Democrats rated their group at 25 percent atheist. Democrats thought that 44 percent of Republicans were earning more than 250K per year when it was only 2 percent, but Republicans rated their group at 33 percent being that rich. When members falsely stereotype their own group, it’s harder to deride the other group for holding the same stereotype.
According to data like these, our perception that parties are biased against each other has a bias. Democrats and Republicans agree with each other about the typical Democrat and Republican more than most of us realize. In both the 2019 and 2018 reports, there were also cases where Democrats and Republicans were accurate or close to being accurate in their estimates of each other. For example, Democrats correctly estimated Republicans’ low concern about climate change.
Is the Other Party Driven by Hate?
In the article “You Know Less Than You Think,” Rathje (2019) wrote that “both Democrats and Republicans think that their own side is motivated by love for their party, but their political opponents are motivated by hate.” Such a statement fits the results of the cited article (Waytz et al., 2014) but also might oversimplify them.
First, in Waytz's first study, each party rated their own and the other party’s hate and love motivations near the center of the scale. Where 1 = “not at all” and 7 = “very much,” the means lay between 3.5 and 4.6. These moderate ratings fall far short of “very much” and more in the area of “sort of.” Second, each party rated their hate and love motivations within about 1.0 of what they rated the other party’s motivations. That’s not a big difference.
Third, and perhaps most surprising, Waytz ran another study that managed to reverse these results. In a condition where participants were offered an extra $12 for accurate ratings, political parties thought the other party was slightly more motivated by love than hate. Wow.
For less than $15 per person, can we really not only eliminate this intergroup bias but also turn it into kind impressions of each other? The intergroup bias must not be as strong as we thought. Of course, we need to entertain alternative explanations and wait for replication studies. But still, wow.
Do Democrats and Republicans misunderstand each other? Yes, but not as much as you might think, and not a whole lot more than they misunderstand themselves. Ironically, there is a risk in our crazy, sad politics these days to be biased about how much each party is biased against each other.
By many measures, the partisanship and intergroup biases have been terrible—don’t get me wrong—but let’s not add fuel to the fire. Terrible is better than horrendous. And not every Democrat and Republican misperceive each other.
Through education, less simplistic popular press writing, and reading past the headlines, we can form more realistic perceptions of each other and ourselves. In particular, realizing that we’re almost as biased against ourselves (on some measures) as the other side is biased against us may make us less angry at the other side when they misjudge us.
Douglas J. Ahler and Gaurav Sood, "The Parties in Our Heads: Misperceptions about Party Composition and Their Consequences," Journal of Politics 80 (2018): 964–81.
Nicholas Grossman, “Sorry, But Republicans and Democrats Do Not Misunderstand Each Other,” Arc Digital, June 24, 2019, https://arcdigital.media/sorry-but-republicans-and-democrats-do-not-misunderstand-each-other-3c43e6f6498f.
Robert P. Jones, “Republicans More Likely to Say White Americans—Rather Than Black Americans—Face Discrimination,” Public Religion Research Institute, August 2, 2017, https://www.prri.org/spotlight/republicans-white-black-reverse-discrimination/.
D. A. Kirk, “Republicans and Democrats Really Do Misunderstand Each Other,” Arc Digital, July 18, 2019, https://arcdigital.media/counterpoint-republicans-and-democrats-dont-understand-each-other-as-well-as-they-might-think-19ff5ab198e6.
Yascha Mounk, “Republicans Don’t Understand Democrats—And Democrats Don’t Understand Republicans,” Atlantic, June 23, 2019, https://www.theatlantic.com/ideas/archive/2019/06/republicans-and-democrats-dont-understand-each-other/592324/.
David Myers, Social Psychology, 11th ed. (New York: McGraw Hill, 2013).
Deborah A. Prentice and Dale T. Miller, “Pluralistic Ignorance and Alcohol Use on Campus: Some Consequences of Misperceiving the Social Norm,” Journal of Personality and Social Psychology 64 (1993): 243–56.
Steve Rathje, “You Know Less Than You Think,” Psychology Today, August 19, 2019, https://www.psychologytoday.com/us/blog/words-matter/201908/you-know-less-you-think.
Amanda Ripley, “Democrats and Republicans Are Very Bad at Guessing Each Other’s Beliefs,” Washington Post, June 22, 2019, https://www.washingtonpost.com/opinions/democrats-and-republicans-are-very-bad-at-guessing-each-others-beliefs/2019/06/21/bcd061b2-92c7-11e9-b58a-a6a9afaa0e3e_story.html.
Adam Waytz et al., “Motive Attribution Asymmetry for Love vs. Hate Drives Intractable Conflict,” Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences 111 (2014): 15687–92.
Daniel Yudkin et al. (June, 2019), “The Perception Gap: How False Impressions Are Pulling Americans Apart,” More in Common, June, 2019, https://perceptiongap.us/media/zaslaroc/perception-gap-report-1-0-3.pdf.